NYFF Review: 'The Dog'

If you were near me when I read Scott Tobias' March 7, 2013 piece in the AV Club entitled “If documentaries want to be treated like movies, they need to behave like them” you may have heard me moaning “yes! yes! Oh, God, yes!” in bed. (I read it first thing in the morning on my phone.) We have a documentary proliferation problem and it is only getting worse. Cheap cameras, Kickstarter and issues with a built-in audience are drowning us in unnecessary product. Did you know there's a movie about the Beatles' secretary? And it played in theaters?!? Not every person who ever did anything noteworthy deserves a movie. Not every interesting fella is going to give you the next “Crumb” if he yaps about his life. If you ever see me scowling at a film festival, it is likely because of this issue.

Which brings us to “The Dog,” an in-depth look about John Wojtowicz, the real life guy Al Pacino played in “Dog Day Afternoon.” As is always the way in life – because life is annoying – there are exceptions to my own rules. “The Dog” is very much a superfluous movie, and yet I could not turn away. While everything you really need to know about this guy is already in “Dog Day Afternoon,” much of the reason Sidney Lumet's 1975 film works is because its lead character is so . . .odd. As such, it's impossible not to have your attention held by “The Dog,” even if there isn't much to Alison Berg and Frank Keraudren's documentary you couldn't glean from Wikipedia.

Wojtowicz may have a Polish name but is straight-up Brooklyn Italian-American (his mother is Sicilian.) He's a loud alpha-male tough guy and proudly declares himself a pervert. He has no other vices, so he channels all of life's stresses into sex. While he had a wife and children, he spent most of his life in the gay community – and absolutely impervious to any of the stereotypes that usually come with that lifestyle.

“The Dog”'s biggest selling points is unearthed videos from the early New York gay rights movement, of which Wojtowicz was an early member. The advocacy groups quickly distanced themselves when Wojtowicz turned to criminal behavior.

As detailed in “Dog Day Afternoon,” Wojtowicz's boyfriend, a trans* individual named Ernie whom Wojtowicz married in a celebrated Lower Manhattan ceremony (unbeknownst to Wojtowicz legal wife), decides to have a sex change. Low on funds, Wojtowicz convinces two friends to knock over a bank in Brooklyn.

You've all seen “Dog Day Afternoon” so you know what happens. What you don't know is that after the movie came out, and after Wojtowicz was able to get out of prison, he became something of a local celebrity. Ironically, his halfway house was on the same block as gay Mecca Studio 54. Wojtowicz was also known to go to the Brooklyn bank and sell autographs.

There's a surprising amount of surviving footage from Wojtowicz' 70s exploits, and with it comes frank, high volume commentary from today. There's some great dirty 70s New York in “The Dog” - but some of it is perfectly complimented by the time capsule figures still floating around Brooklyn. (The two women named Fran talking over one another at the beauty parlor straddle both eras nicely.) Wojtowicz is nothing if not opinionated, as is his elderly mother. (Sadly, the two are never interviewed simultaneously – what a missed opportunity that is!)

This all makes for very entertaining viewing, but it never feels necessary. There's some stuff about what it means to be a celebrity, but not enough to draw any insightful conclusions. Wojtowicz has a mentally handicapped brother, and scenes of them at Coney Island are touching, but they feel as though they were stapled onto this film just so that there could be some melancholy moments. Unlike “Crumb,” which shows how art is a release valve for a family's madness, I am not quite sure what statement, if any, the filmmakers are making about the Wojtowicz clan.

SCORE: 6.4 / 10